Our guide to watercolour painting
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to watercolour painting

First published date October 29 2013 Amended date October 29 2013

Whether you have an inner Georgia O'Keeffe that's just desperate to take brush to canvas and create a riot of intense colour, or simply that you have an old set of watercolours and easel gathering dust in the attic, watercolour painting could be the new hobby for you. It might be that your love of sloshing a brush in a pot of paint has never waned since your school days or that you are an experienced artist who is keen to explore a new creative medium. Either way, what could be more creatively satisfying than hanging your own work of art in your own home for all to admire?


There are a number of watercolour painting courses tailored specifically for your artistic leaning, whether you are a complete beginner or a more experienced creative type who wants to broaden their horizons. Don't forget, painting in a group is a sociable affair too, a chance to meet a new group of friends and flex your creative muscle at the same time.


Know your colours

On the face of it, watercolour painting is one of the simplest forms of painting. All you need are some paints, a jar of clean water, a brush and some paper...add water to the paint, put the brush on paper and, hey presto, you're painting. The results are both beautiful and intriguing and before you know it you could be whipping up works of art like the grand master watercolourist, Turner.

However, painting with watercolours is also deemed to be one of the trickiest to master so it is important to choose a course to suit your needs and experience. Introductory courses might work from still life and explore techniques such as layering, masking out and creating textures; other short courses will show you how to stretch paper, apply colour washes and use paint to bring out the full translucent quality of how beautiful watercolour paints can be.

If you have a basic ground knowledge of watercolours, an intermediate or advanced course is the perfect route to take and will teach you more in-depth techniques such as wet on wet, wet on dry and palette mixing methods. Some courses explore watercolours combined with other media such as ink, pencil and crayon while others will give you the chance to reproduce a famous artist's painting. The list is endless.

Learn to paint skies, buildings, trees and water; there may be opportunities to paint on location too or paint particular watercolour subjects like tulips and butterflies. Could there be a more relaxing way to spend a few hours?


Tools of the trade

Basic materials will be provided on most courses but do check before you start. If you want to invest in some equipment of your own, don't spend a fortune in the first place; experiment at home and seek advice:


1. A small, lightweight field box which is bought empty and filled up with your own choice of colours. This is a portable option but if you are working at home a large palette with a cover is a good choice.


2. Buy one good quality brush. Watercolour brushes are usually made from hair rather than bristle (if you can afford it buy a sable brush) and need to be wide enough to hold plenty of colour and water.


3. Paints come in tubes or pans (small blocks). Experiment with pans at home first as they are cheaper; paint in tubes has to be squeezed on to a palette and is easier for larger areas. A basic colour palette needs yellow, red, blue, a gold shade, reddish brown and a dark brown and perhaps a green.


4. Every watercolour artist should have a few water soluble graphite pencils for sketching out your picture before you paint.


5. A selection of sketchbooks so you can paint and draw on location and some good quality watercolour paper in sheets, a pad or block.


Famous watercolourists

While watercolour painting is extremely old and has been around since the ancient cave paintings of primitive man, it really took off in the Renaissance. Be inspired by some of the great watercolour artists of all time with our checklist of who's who in the art world:


Albrecht Durer (1471-1528): a German printmaker and early practitioner of watercolours, he found the medium ideal for small, detailed studies such as botanical, wildlife and landscape watercolours.


William Blake (1757-1827): English printmaker and poet, Blake, rediscovered the illustrative power of watercolours and used them for his hand-tinted engraved poetry.


Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851): Any budding watercolourist will be familiar with Turner's dramatic and startlingly atmospheric and expressive paintings of the European countryside and seascapes. He transformed watercolour landscape painting into a completely new discipline and is commonly known as the 'painter of light'.


Paul Klee (1879-1940): Swiss-born Klee's work ranged from Expressionism to Cubism and watercolour played a part in his abstract explorations.


Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986): In the US, O'Keeffe was best known for her use of watercolours as a means of exploring intense colour and light, particularly when capturing the vast expanses of sky and landscape that she experienced in Texas where she lived and taught between 1916 and 1918.


Did you know?

 • Watercolours dry lighter. A colour will always look stronger and darker when it is wet. To make colours more intense use more paint and less water or paint another layer of colour over the first

 • Modern-day artists like Tracey Emin and Anish Kapoor continue to explore the possibilities of watercolours in their work

 • Turner famously said: ‘If I could find anything blacker than black, I'd use it’ and ‘My job is to paint what I see, not what I know’

 • The white in watercolour comes from the white of the paper, not the paint itself, so experts may advise painting from light to dark. Start with the lightest colours and tones and build your way up to the darkest


By Lara Sargent

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